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As Iraq war ends, strange hush descends on US bases

With all US troops set to be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31, bases that once bubbled with activity are now emptying, leaving behind wistful stragglers and a shortage of Oreo cookies. 

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 14, 2011

A Christmas tree made of cans is seen inside the administration building for the Office of Security Operation-Iraq (OSCI) and the former headquarters of Iraq's political Ba'ath Party in Baghdad Wednesday.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

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BAGHDAD

In the final days of the Iraq war, US troops here have increasingly become sightseers as they await their flights back home.

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The tale of the American military's last days in Iraq has many faces, from the soldiers desperate to impart last lessons to the uncertainties gripping their Iraqi colleagues. But for many US troops, it is a gentle unwinding as the mementos that have for eight years made American bases in Iraq some version of "home" – from rooftop driving ranges to copy machines to chai lattes – slowly disappear.

As they log their last helicopter rides in-country and their farewell meetings with Iraqi counterparts, troops here admit to a certain wistfulness at their imminent departure. 

They tromp through the acres of gravel that have long lent US bases here a perpetual grey patina, taking souvenir photos of state flags and unit logos painted and signed on the high concrete barriers, as they pose with their comrades in arms. 

They take in rooftop panoramic views of Baghdad to say goodbye.

But most of all, they are immersed in the considerable undertaking of packing to be ready for the trip home.

The sundries shop at Sather Air Base – where soldiers stock up on snacks, sodas, and a reliable array of motorcycle-themed magazines – recently ran out of souvenir Iraq travel coffee mugs. Shop employees say they are struggling to keep up with demands for Oreos as troops leave and State Department employees arrive. (The base has been renamed the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center in a nod to the State Department's new and increased role in the country.)

“I think they snack more – they’re at their desks all day,” one worker opines of the new diplomatic corps. “The soldiers were always moving around.”

The base coffee spot, the Green Bean, is normally a 24-hour operation, fueling the considerable demands of deployed forces. Now it’s a mere 9-to-5 operation. As a couple of US service members swing by to order some spicy chai lattes, they learn that the supplies of this popular beverage are all gone. 

Nearby, Coke machines are open and defrosting. At the tiny base chapel, Bibles are boxed up and services have been suspended for the time being. A once-gurgling courtyard fountain – actually a sand-colored, water-filled tarp ringed with stones and pink artificial roses – is quiet and unplugged. 

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